Immunocompromised Lawmaker Not Allowed to Work Remotely During COVID: ‘Feels Like You're Not Valued’
"It is something that is so easy to do," Wisconsin state Rep. Jodi Emerson said
A Wisconsin state lawmaker is speaking out after her request to work virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic was reportedly denied despite her being immunocompromised.
According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article published Tuesday, state Rep. Jodi Emerson and her doctor had written a note to the state assembly speaker, Rep. Robin Vos, and the legislature's human resources director, Amanda Jorgenson, asking that Emerson be allowed to participate in sessions and committee hearings virtually from her office.
Emerson tells PEOPLE she has an autoimmune disorder and she made the request to work virtually from her office because some colleagues don't wear masks inside the statehouse, where it is not required.
"Being immunocompromised during a pandemic is hard enough but working in a building where people refuse to wear masks or take other precautions that the CDC recommends is very scary," she said.
"I'm speaking out because no one should have to be afraid of dying because of their job," Emerson added.
Vos and Jorgenson denied Emerson's request on multiple occasions last month, according to Emerson and letters obtained by the Journal Sentinel. Vos and Jorgenson falsely claimed that COVID-19 can't be transmitted through the air and offered Emerson a plexiglass shield, instead.
"I submitted a letter from my doctor saying that would not help," Emerson told PEOPLE, adding that her follow up requests to work virtually from her office were denied.
Vos and Jorgenson did not respond to PEOPLE's request for comment.
"COVID-19 is primarily transmitted from person-to-person through respiratory droplets," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states. "These droplets are released when someone with COVID-19 sneezes, coughs, or talks."
The CDC has long recommended social distancing of six feet while in recent days federal health experts have warned that COVID-19 can be transmitted through the air at an even greater distance.
"It really feels like you're just not valued as a person — that my health doesn't matter," Emerson, a 48-year-old Democrat, told the Journal Sentinel. "It is something that is so easy to do. I'd get it if what I was requesting was a half a million upgrade to the Capitol — that's not a reasonable accommodation."
Emerson has now been fully vaccinated and is waiting for her doctor's clearance to relax her social distancing precautions, but she is keeping her eye on news of new variants of the respiratory disease.
When asked by the Journal Sentinel, three epidemiologists disputed Vos and Jorgenson's claims about COVID-19 transmission.
"I don't know where they would get the boldness to say point-blank it's not airborne transmission," Amanda Simanek, an epidemiology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's School of Public Health, told the paper.
After the newspaper reached out to Vos and Jorgenson, the two reportedly wrote Emerson another letter walking back their initial statements about COVID-19 not being airborne, although they still denied Emerson's request and instead offered her a box of face masks.
Vos, a conservative Republican who has led the Wisconsin statehouse since 2013, has denied other lawmakers' requests to work virtually even before the pandemic.
The Journal Sentinel previously reported that he turned down a similar request in 2019 from a lawmaker who is paralyzed and uses a wheelchair. Rep. Jimmy Anderson had said he felt discriminated against after Vos denied his ask to call into meetings.
Vos, however, didn't see it the same way.
"It just comes down to the fact that I think it's disrespectful for someone to be asking questions over a microphone or a speakerphone when individuals are actually taking the time out of their day to come and testify in person," the Republican said, according to the Journal Sentinel.
The newspaper reports that Emerson's request could lead to a legal dispute.
Emerson told PEOPLE she has retained a lawyer but doesn't plan on filing a lawsuit unless the circumstances change.
"I am currently fully vaccinated so unless variants arise that do not respond to the current vaccine, I am not imminently seeking action," Emerson said.
As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public health departments. PEOPLE has partnered with GoFundMe to raise money for the COVID-19 Relief Fund, a GoFundMe.org fundraiser to support everything from frontline responders to families in need, as well as organizations helping communities. For more information or to donate, click here.